In 1938, Isaiah Anozie, an indigene of Igbo Ukwu, a town in present-day Anambra state of southeastern Nigeria, was digging a ditch in his compound when he encountered several bronze objects. They included a ram’s head, a pendant depicting a face with scarification, a staff, a manila and a semi-circular vessel. There, in those artifacts, are hints of the origins of the town’s name: Igbo Ukwu, or Great Igbo.

The chance discoveries roused significant curiosity with the news eventually reaching the Archaeology Department of the University of Ibadan (founded in 1948). When formal excavations were eventually conducted by Thurstan Shaw, an archaeologist from the department, 21 years after the initial discovery in 1959, it was a great revelation.

Igbo Ukwu bronze objects

In all, three sites were excavated, now known as Igbo Isaiah, Igbo Richard and Igbo Jonah, named after the owners of the compounds where the objects were found. The digs showed that Igbo Isaiah was the location of a shrine, Igbo Richard a burial chamber of what seemed to be a royal personnage, while Igbo Jonah was a treasure trove of many objects, some of which suggested long-distance trade with places as far away as ancient Egypt. Carbon-dating of the objects showed they were made as far back as the 9th century, 900 years ago, the oldest in West Africa.

An illustration of the excavated burial chamber and placement of the corpse.

Interpreting Igbo Ukwu

The objects were real bronze, made of lead, zinc and copper alloys, (unlike the Ife and Benin bronzes made 500 years later that are actually brass, comprising only lead and zinc). The objects showed that their makers were advanced in metallurgy, using a lost-wax method to produce items of such intricate artistic beauty that illustrated advanced technical mastery of the metals used.

The Igbo Ukwu discoveries came more than 400 years after European trans-Atlantic slavery had devastated Africa, leaving it prostate for the colonial rape that followed. It was a time when many Europeans sought to justify the heinous crime against African people by denying their humanity through institutionalizing racism and claiming that Africans had no civilization and deserved what they got. Therefore, the initial response to the Igbo Ukwu discoveries was to invoke the Hamitic hypothesis, which described a tendency to attribute African accomplishments to some fictional Hamites, light-skinned people from the East.

Igbo Ukwo decorated bronze staff head.

Yet the objects depicted things that were items of Igbo culture, such as the scarification marks known as igbu ichi, ritual animals and local costumes as well flora and fauna. Part of the argument against local production of the objects initially was that there were no known local sources of the copper used in the bronzes.

This assertion was shot down through studies by Professors Vincent Chikwendu and Alphonse Umeji of the Archaeology Department of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. They traced the sources of the copper to the Abakaliki-Afikpo area of Igboland.

Shaw first observed in Igbo Ukwu, his book on the excavation published in 1970, that the metal alloys showed significant traces of silver when subjected to chemical analysis. This was later reinforced by Paul Craddock of the British Museum’s research laboratory, U.K. leading to the speculation that the copper used came from a single source. Working with R.M. Farquhar of the University of Toronto, Craddock analysed samples from the old mines in the Abakaliki area and found that the ores share similarities in components and ratios of lead isotopes with the Igbo Ukwu bronzes.

The final results of this study are detailed in a joint publication by Craddock, Janet Ambers, Duncan R. Hook, Farquhar, Chikwendu, Umeji and Shaw, titled Metal Sources and the Bronzes From Igbo-Ukwu, Nigeria, published in the Journal of Field Archaeology (Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), pp. 405-429). They provide the most conclusive evidence about the indigenous sources of the metals as well as the local design and execution.

The Nri Epoch

In fact, what the discoveries reveal about Igbo society is a past where monarchs had a pride of place that existed in reconciliation and harmony with Igbo republicanism, where the will for individualism found a fine balance with the need to accept collective aspirations under a kind of priest-king.

The Nri priests and kings played a vital role in Igbo reverence of the earth, a very important ritual in every agricultural epoch, where the earth marveled by its fertility and the bounties it returned for every seed. These priests safeguarded the earth against nso ala, violations detrimental to its sustenance and the dependent humanity.

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Igbo Ukwu bronze roped pot.

Their intricate rituals and practices sought to ensure a harmonious relationship between humans and their environment. They were closely bound to the unfolding of the seasons, calculated from the base of a four-day week and and the development of organized commerce through its accompanying market system, (the essential foundation of Igboness) that connects an area larger than many modern European nations today.

Within this quasi-religious, political, economic and philosophical system was forged the principles of the Igbo Republican system, that attained substantial hegemony over large areas through the priest-king system than through violence and conquest.

All of these were attained and solidified long before the coming of the white man and the onset of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that triggered the Arochukwu hegemony from the 15th century onward. It was a violent epoch that led to the destruction of much of Igbo civilization from the heights it had reached in the preceding era, attainments to which the Igbo Ukwu artefacts speak.